Paul Mason’s Socialist Humanist Manifesto

Kevin B. Anderson

Summary: Mason’s Clear Bright Future critiques the culture and politics of cyber-capitalism and the fascist threat, offering a humanist alternative to both — Editors

Public intellectuals of the Left usually expend their time and energy on anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, anti-racism, and less frequently, anti-capitalism. They often see their role, in the muckraker tradition, as one of “exposing” the system. One problem with such an approach is that it elides the question of what we are for, of a humanist vision of a future that could replace this system, so rotten to the core that it has turned up the likes of Trump and the neofascist U.S. Republican Party. But simply exposing all this can easily end in cynicism rather than a socialist humanist framework that can undergird the kind of sustained movement we need to uproot the system.

One public intellectual has increasingly stepped into this void, however, the British economic journalist, tech critic, and political commentator Paul Mason, who was a BBC journalist and now writes regularly for New Statesman, Guardian, and other venues with large audiences. In a series of books, he has surveyed the global revolts at the time of Occupy and the Arab Spring and has put forth arguments concerning the future of work, or rather a future based upon leisure time if we could overcome the capital relation while still retaining much of the system’s technology.

Among Mason’s recent books, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being (Allen Lane, 2019, the title is drawn from a declaration by Leon Trotsky), stands out as a manifesto of socialist humanism that takes on neoliberal ideology and the cyberworld of contemporary capitalism. He also delivers a withering critique not only their basic anti-humanism, but also the anti-humanism of the academic left, still too much in the shadow of postmodernism, which he charges with helping to open the road toward the present state of affairs.

Mason begins with a stark declaration: “We are facing the biggest attack on humanism since it was formulated in the days of Shakespeare and Galileo” (p. 10). These threats are emerging from artificial intelligence, neuroscience and information theory, retrograde regimes that are hostile to human rights, and “free-market” economics.

Mason is also conversant with radical humanist thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Raya Dunayevskaya, and with their anti-humanist counterparts like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Louis Althusser.

This ground has been covered before, but the power of Mason’s account lies in his facility with the broad threats to humanism mentioned above. The first of these, “free market” ideology, creates a “neoliberal self” characterized by “a systematic selfishness, risk-calculation and conformist consumption,” none of which are as new as the notions “that borrowing is good, and that no matter how badly financial markets crash, nothing bad ever happens” (p. 50). Thus, even the poor, the precariat, and the young are pushed to borrow huge amounts. Trumpism and Brexit are cast as new forms of neoliberalism, reconstituted after the 2008 crash as a new more overtly “nationalist neoliberalism,” put forward with campaigns of hate against people of color, immigrants, and women (p. 71). (It is of course debatable as to whether Trumpism is a reconfiguration of neoliberalism, or a successor form of state-capitalism.) Citing Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno, Mason notes that contemporary authoritarian nationalists lurch toward fascism when they develop a “willingness to label their opponents inhuman” (p. 99). In particular, Mason draws on Fromm’s last major book, Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, wherein Fromm writes that under fascism “man himself is hardly distinguishable from a robot” (cited on p. 189), something Mason calls an ethic of “voluntary extinction” not unconnected to fascism’s overt worship of death and destruction (p. 189).

Another new element Mason considers is the “alt-right,” which does things in cyberspace it would be blocked from carrying out in real social space, as especially seen in its violently misogynist social media attacks. The genius of this new form of rightwing ideology is its constant claim that its own free speech is being denied. Another new element is the surge of disinformation and abuse, which has led many to recoil from cyberspace, leaving even more of the field to the alt-right and its allies. Mason considers these developments responses to the revolutionary wave 2011-2013, which led to still newer aspects:

From around mid-2013 the elites evolved three strategic responses to networked protest movements: censorship, the creation of elite-controlled information bubbles, and ultimately the flood of fake news. Only the last one really worked, and for an obvious reason: it was the only strategy that leveraged the power of the network against itself. (p. 198)

Nowhere was this more evident that with Trumpism and Brexit.

Mason links this popular anti-humanism to what he calls the dominant ideology’s “mysticism about machines” (p. 116). After reviewing issues surrounding artificial intelligence and other recent developments, he declares, “The new mysticism of science is one of the strongest underpinnings of the anti-humanism that pervades” current discourse (p. 129). It has led some to claim that “the possibility of human freedom is already constrained; soon, computing machines will become more powerful than our brains and free will is going to become impossible” (p. 130).

Mason goes on to critique academic forms of anti-humanism, from poststructuralism to posthumanism, including Donna Haraway’s notion that we are already cyborgs. Here, he devotes particular attention to Althusser’s notion of history as a process without a subject, a theory that leaves almost no room for resistance or revolution due to its denial of the subject. For Althusser himself, who still wanted revolution despite espousing a type of theory that negated its possible emergence from the existing working class or other social forces, an elitist “escape hatch” presented itself: “the Leninist theory of party and revolution, which says a small group of intellectuals and advanced workers are needed to break the masses out of their passivity” and thus “force open the door of history” (p. 176). Michel Foucault picked up the notion of process without a subject and “proceeded to remove every other dynamic that might make sense of material reality, capital, laws of motion and — ultimately — the knowability of the world” (p. 177).

In response to the various anti-humanist pressures that still show much power even today, Mason unfurls a full-throated socialist humanism, basing himself in part on Marx’s concept of species being or essence [Gattungswesen] in the 1844 Manuscripts. Pushing back against much contemporary academic radical discourse, Mason unabashedly advances a series of species characteristics that he considers to be “unique” to human beings: constant learning, consciousness and reason; imagining before creating; living in ordered groups; and language (p. 138). Clearly, most of these concepts can be found in Marx. (While Mason acknowledges that “chimps and baboons” share living in groups with us, one wishes here for a bit more discussion of what commonalities between humans and other animals.)

In this light, Mason surveys the dominant ethical systems of today, from Mill’s greatest good for the greatest number and what it leaves behind, to Rawls’s liberal accommodation to the logic of capital, to Nietzschean anti-humanism, in order to come down in favor of an ethic of helping human beings to realize their full potential within a community, rooted of course in Aristotle but going up through Marx.

This long quote gives the flavor of Mason’s version of socialist humanism:

To defend humanism, we need, of course, to rescue the idea from Eurocentrism: but I do not want to replace it with cultural relativism. As we defend the values of the Renaissance, the scientific method, the Enlightenment and the radical humanism of Marx, we are not defending something specifically ‘white,’ male or even European. We are defending, for example, the achievements of Islamic humanism — maths, algorithms, jurisprudence and the rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries CE. We are defending the wisdom of the freed African slave and playwright Terence, who wrote in 13 BCE: ‘nothing human is alien to me’.

Like black liberation theorist Frantz Fanon, I want humanism to expand so that it can acknowledge and make reparations for the crimes committed by Europeans in the developing world, not ignore them. I want a form of humanism that is not centred on ‘man’ but on men and women. Because women’s biological difference from men has been for tens of thousands of years the justification for domestic slavery and oppression, and because these survive alongside women’s participation in the workforce, humanism has to incorporate a female idea of freedom that diverges in some respects from the male idea.

To the question ‘are we already post-human?’ I want everyone reading this book to make a conscious choice: to answer no. (p. 190)

Mason entitles the penultimate section of the book simply “Marx,” which he begins with an epigraph from Dunayevskaya: “Marxism is a theory of liberation or it is nothing.” (p. 207). Here, Mason effectively puts forward Marx’s critique of alienation, also noting, vs. the crude materialism of so many forms of anti-humanism, that Marx “fused… idealism and materialism” (p. 211). Unfortunately, at this juncture, Mason also wrongly charges Marx with neglecting gender and with an uncritical productivism. While distancing himself from “the despairing social commentaries” of “Marcuse, Adorno, and Horkheimer,” Mason finds “of more relevance for us today the Marxist humanism of thinkers like Raya Dunayevskaya, the Chicago labour organiser who first translated the 1844 manuscripts; and the self-proclaimed ‘radical humanism’ of figures like Erich Fromm” (p. 241).

Mason’s concluding chapters offer some thoughts on how to fight the looming fascist threat. These include: (1) the need for the radical left and the liberal center to form a strategic alliance against fascism, (2) efforts to prevent conservative parties from going fascist, and (3) fighting for economic measures to relieve the suffering of working-class communities, some of whose white elements have leaned toward fascism of late. Here, Mason might have added direct attacks on racism as would be seen in the international Black Lives Matter movement of 2020.

In Clear Bright Future, Paul Mason has written, in highly popular yet also theoretically serious form, a real manifesto of socialist humanism for the 2020s. In so doing, he operates in the tradition of Erich Fromm, who attacked the capitalist war machine and put forth a version of socialist humanism, all the while separating himself from the authoritarian state capitalist systems of the Soviet Union and China. Fromm also critiqued the conformist capitalist culture of the 1950s, showing its fundamental affinities to a more radical and destructive form born out of severe economic and political distress, Nazism in Germany. Like Fromm, Mason poses socialist humanism and the humanism of Marx as an alternative to the technocratic and propagandistic dominant discourses of our times.

This book, which also exhibits affinities to the type of Marxist-Humanism being developed in the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, should be read by everyone seeking a political and philosophical orientation in these turbulent times.






Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment

  1. karel

    It is refreshing to read this review of Paul Mason’s book and the emphasizing of some stimulating points of it in the perspective as to the alternative of capitalist society, a review which shows by just highlighting some issues from Mason’s book which are terribly necessary in order to understand the contemporay world where a mysticism of science and philosophy as ideology of the ruling class is dominating. My comment on this review has the intention to look closer to some aspects of the humanism issue of the book which Kevin is bringing to the fore.

    As to humanism Kevin quotes from Mason’s book that “We are facing the biggest attack on humanism since it was formulated in the days of Shakespeare and Galileo” (p. 10). These threats are emerging from artificial intelligence, neuroscience and information theory, retrograde regimes that are hostile to human rights, and “free-market” economics.”
    Without doubt humanism already has a long history. It’s date of birth is even older as “the days of Shakespeare and Galileo”. We can think here for example of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (15th century). The birthday of humanism, which I would like to call “traditional humanism”, and the line of thought it developed , although certainly not unimportant, are however not my main concern. Rather I would like to point to specific notions of Marx’s humanism, a humanism on a new basis and universal in nature, developed from his analysis of capitalist society. For a clear understanding of this new basis and the universality of Marx’s humanism compared to “traditional humanism” we can in a metaphorical sense use his statement in the Introduction of the Grundrisse where he says that “Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape.” In other words, we have to look “why” and “how” Marx in a dialectical way transcended “traditional humanism”.

    For a good approach to Marx’s notion of humanism we can turn to a passage in Marx’s letter to Annenkov, December 28, 1846. Before doing this I do emphasize that we have to realize ourselves that he was writing this letter AFTER the writing of the 1844 Manuscripts and the formulation of the sixth Feuerbach thesis, a thesis in which he writes, “But the essence of man is no abstraction indwelling in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”

    In his letter to Annenkov Marx writes:

    “Needless to say, man is not free to choose his productive forces—upon which his whole history is based—for every productive force is an acquired force, the product of previous activity. Thus the productive forces are the result of man’s practical energy, but that energy is in turn circumscribed by the conditions in which man is placed by the productive forces already acquired, by the form of society which exists before him, which he does not create, which is the product of the preceding generation. The simple fact that every succeeding generation finds productive forces acquired by the preceding generation and which serve it as the raw material of further production, engenders a relatedness in the history of man, engenders a history of mankind, which is all the more a history of mankind as man’s productive forces, and hence his social relations, have expanded. From this it can only be concluded that the social history of man is never anything else than the history of his individual development, whether he is conscious of this or not. His material relations form the basis of all his relations. These material relations are but the necessary forms in which his material and individual activity is realized.”

    It will be clear that when we talk about Marx’s humanism one of the central sentences, perhaps the most central sentence, in this passage is, “From this it can only be concluded that the social history of man is never anything else than the history of his individual development, whether he is conscious of this or not. “ Actually Marx is here speaking about a dialectic of the objective and subjective conditions of the historical process of mankind, a notion we do not find in “traditional humanism”.

    Next Kevin is writing that “ Mason unabashedly advances a series of species characteristics that he considers to be “unique” to human beings: constant learning, consciousness and reason; imagining before creating; living in ordered groups; and language (p. 138). Clearly, most of these concepts can be found in Marx.” The question here of course is whether these characteristics are “unique” to human beings. Some of these characteristics we also find in other non-human animals. Is that a problem for Marx’s humanism and its notion of the characterization of the difference between human beings and non-human animals? The answer is NO. For the root of this difference is not so much in these species characteristics as rather in the nature of the social history of mankind and the history of individual development of human beings. As for the clearing up of this difference I refer to the words of the Marxist philosopher Lucien Sève who is writing:

    “If there is one general assertion about mankind whose application to any animal species whatsoever is radically impossible, it is that of Marx in his letter to Annenkov already quoted several times: “The social history of men is never more than the history of their individual development.” Application impossible for a double reason, which immediately introduces us to the heart of the subject. Firstly, because no animal species has a SOCIAL HISTORY— by which means the cumultatively transformative process that the collective activity of individuals induces from generation to generation in the way of life of the group, which differs completely from biological evolution by which the animal organism and the behavioral repertory of the population under consideration are modified in an incomparably slower and narrower way : there is no social history of ants. Secondly, because, in a related way, there is also no HISTORY OF INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT in any animal species — let us specify: the way in which both genetically regulated and contextually modulated the behaviour of the individual unfolds in it during his life does not itself transform cumulatively over the generations into a function of a social history of the species , which is missing.” (1)

    In the beginning of this comment I write that I look to some aspects of the humanism issue. There is of course a lot more to say about it but that is beyond the scope of a comment.

    1.Lucien Sève. 2008. Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui, Tome II, “L’homme”?, pp. 91-92. Paris. La Dispute.